Q&A with BGSU Lake Erie Center researcher Dr. Timothy Davis
By Bonnie Blankinship
Dr. Timothy Davis, an associate professor of biological sciences, joined Bowling Green State University in August 2017. Davis is a key member of the research team for the recently announced BGSU Lake Erie Center for Fresh Waters and Human Health. In addition to his teaching and research at the University, he is a co-chair of the National HAB Committee, which was established more than 15 years ago for the purpose of providing a collective voice of the academic, management and stakeholder communities interested in national harmful algal bloom issues. Earlier this year he was appointed to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Board of Scientific Counselors, a federal advisory committee that provides advice, information and recommendations to EPA’s Office of Research and Development. As part of this three-year term, Davis serves as a member of the Safe and Sustainable Water Resources subcommittee. He also recently served as a national expert at harmful algal bloom summits in New York, part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s $65 million initiative to combat cyanobacterial HABs in upstate New York lakes. He was recently the recipient of two prestigious awards, the 2018 Department of Commerce Gold Medal Award and the 2018 Department of Commerce Ron Brown Excellence in Innovation Award. Both awards were given for his and his NOAA colleagues’ efforts in pioneering advanced toxin sensor technology to protect U.S. communities from economic and public health impacts of harmful algal blooms.
Q. Where do you think your passion for biology, especially aquatic biology, sprang from? Did you grow up around water? (I see you went to Stony Brook.)
A. I was born on Long Island and lived most of my childhood on the south shore within a short bike ride to Bellport Bay. I spent a lot of my time in the woods and wetlands that surrounded my house tracking Eastern box turtles, rabbits or anything else I found. However, I always loved the ocean. My mother, sister and I would spend many weekend days at the beach and I would use my mom’s surfcasting rod to try, often unsuccessfully, to catch bluefish and striped bass. Since my mother was an elementary school teacher, during the summers we would visit my grandmother in Pentwater, Michigan. I spend almost every day on the shores of Lake Michigan, swimming, fishing and boating. I think my love for water stemmed from this upbringing.
Q. Were you always a curious person?
A. Like any kid, I had my passions. I was always curious about nature, especially the ocean, but couldn’t care less about things like business, stock markets, etc.
Q. You brought your 8-year-old son along on your trip to Kenya with other BGSU faculty this spring. Did you have any experiences like that growing up?
A. Yes, that was a very memorable experience for my son. I never had an experience quite like that growing up, but my mother and I used to walk the south shore beaches of Long Island in the middle of winter to look for cold-shocked turtles that would ride the warm waters of the Gulf Stream north, then, for various reasons, end up outside the Gulf Stream where they would become lethargic and enter into shock from the cold water. Also, during college I participated in Seamester, which was operated by the Ocean Classroom Foundation where students would spend nine weeks at sea studying, learning to sail a gaff-rigged schooner and visiting various ports of call along the East Coast of the U.S. and the Caribbean. After I graduated, I went back to work for Ocean Classroom for six months as a deckhand/engineer before starting my dissertation research.
Q. Describe how you look at the genomics of an ecosystem to see how HABS are impacting them.
A. Well, all organisms respond to changes in their environments, so with the improvements in molecular tools, we can now look at how an organism is responding to these changes at the genetic level. We are most interested in nutrient uptake, how they are responding to high or low concentration of nutrients.
Q. What was your role at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration?
A. During my time at NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory, I led the harmful algal bloom (HAB) monitoring and research program which supported several critical NOAA HAB forecasting products.
Q. When did you first begin collaborating with BGSU biologists Drs. George Bullerjahn and Michael McKay? How did you decide to join BGSU?
A. I first met George on a Lake Erie research cruise aboard the Canadian Coast Guard vessel Limnos in 2007. At that point I was a graduate student at Stony Brook University. After my dissertation research, my first postdoctoral fellowship was with the Australian Rivers Institute, from 2009-2012. In the spring my family and I moved to Michigan briefly before I applied for a research fellowship position with Environment and Climate Change Canada (ECCC) in Burlington, Ontario. That position is when I reconnected with Mike and George, as the project was a collaboration between ECCC and BGSU. That project was a great success and I enjoyed my time there, conducting experiments, etc., as well as with George and Mike. During my time at ECCC, a permanent position at NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory was advertised. I applied and was selected to fill the position. I worked at NOAA for three and a half years and during that time, I continued to work with George and Mike on various HAB-related issues, including the Toledo water crisis of 2014. We held a joint workshop at BGSU in 2015 that gathered HAB researchers from across the country and the globe to discuss the worsening problem. When the position was advertised at BGSU, I was encouraged to apply. My family and I loved our visits to BG over the years and I enjoyed working with George and Mike so I decided to shift career paths when offered the position.
Q. How do the team’s individual specialties function together?
A. George, Mike and I have many similar interests but diverse backgrounds which help form a strong team of water quality researchers who use their complementary strengths to answer difficult questions about the ecology of these events by attacking the problem from multiple angles.
Q. How did you become an expert adviser nationally on HABs?
A. There are many excellent HAB researchers throughout the country. During my time at NOAA I was fortunate enough to be involved with composing several reports to Congress about HABs on a national lever and specifically in the Great Lakes. I think my prior experience working on these issues in the U.S. and Canada helped me gain a broader perspective that I can use when discussing HAB-related issues with lawmakers, water managers and the public.
Q. Harmful algae seem to be more in the news every day. Is the problem actually getting worse? Why?
A. Yes, they do seem to be gaining more attention than in the past. There is no doubt that this problem is getting worse. Our activities in critical watersheds have led to the development and, in some cases, resurgence and intensity of these events. Global climate change may lead to larger blooms that last longer and may be more toxic. However, we need to recognize that there are many more researchers studying this topic than in the past, so some of the observed increase is related to the fact that we are looking harder. We need to remember that from the 1950s to the ’70s, Lake Erie was experiencing many of the same water quality problems as today. Federal laws such as the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 was amended in 1972 and became commonly known as the Clean Water Act. It helped significantly by reducing phosphorus pollution from industry. Also the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972 was a binational agreement to protect the health of the Great Lakes and established phosphorus reduction targets to improve water quality in western Lake Erie. Through joint efforts, these targets were met but unfortunately, due to shifts in the majority of phosphorus pollution from industry to agriculture, these problems have again appeared and are becoming worse.
Q. What can BGSU and its researchers do to address the harmful algae problem that ails Lake Erie and the Great Lakes?
A. Conducting science that will serve the public good of the region and the nation is important to BGSU researchers. The work we are doing on harmful algal blooms accomplishes both and is helping BGSU establish itself as a leader in this field of study. I am looking forward to continuing to work with my colleagues at BGSU and around the world to develop long-term solutions to this global problem.